Venezuela: Democracy or dictator?

After his startling 16-point (58-42) victory in last Sunday's national recall election, Venezuela's left-leaning president, Hugo Chavez, may be tempted to turn that oil-rich South American democracy into an "elected dictatorship." That's the opinion of longtime Miami Herald Latin America correspondent Andres Oppenheimer, and I agree.

"When firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez said he would stay in power until 2021, he may not have been joking," the prize-winning columnist wrote last week. "People who know him well say he will interpret his proclaimed victory ... as a mandate to deepen his 'revolution' and install an elected dictatorship." Oppenheimer called the referendum "one of the most surprising elections I've seen in recent times." It wasn't all that surprising, however, because Chavez and his henchmen counted the votes.

And that's not all. Oppenheimer attributed Chavez's victory to "a combination of massive intimidation, unabashed use of state resources for propaganda, and the use of $1.6 billion from the country's oil income for cash subsidies to the poor." Chavez handed out $160 a month in cash to hundreds of thousands of poor people and, let's face it, $1.6 billion can buy a lot of votes in any country.

Because I worked and lived for seven years in Venezuela, a nation of eternal spring on South America's north coast and the world's fifth largest oil producer, I'm personally disappointed by the outcome of last Sunday's recall election. Since his election in 1999, Chavez's fiery anti-American rhetoric has scared away investors, triggered capital flight, forced the closing of nearly 7,000 companies and left his country with 2 million more poor people than when he took office. Nevertheless, cash in hand apparently meant more to voters in Venezuela's "ranchitos" (little ranches, or slums) than opposition promises to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs by promoting economic development.

Although a shocked opposition, including business and labor leaders, claimed electronic voter fraud, international election observers - led by ex-President Jimmy Carter and representatives of the Organization of American States - corroborated the Chavez victory. It should be noted that Venezuela used electronic voting machines very similar to the ones that will be used in Northern Nevada for the first time next month.

Prior to the election, the Chavez government installed 12,000 fingerprinting machines in voting places, allegedly to keep people from voting twice but also spreading fears that their votes wouldn't be kept secret, according to Oppenheimer. Most voters already knew that Chavez had fired thousands of government workers who had signed the 3.4- million-signature petition that forced last Sunday's referendum.

Another highly respected Latin America correspondent, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, called Chavez "an incoming missile that few in the Bush administration, or Washington, were expecting because so little attention has been paid to Latin America since Sept. 11, 2001." While Washington virtually ignored Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, Chavez was implementing his "Bolivarian Revolution," which is clearly patterned after the Communist revolution that his best friend, Fidel Castro, imposed upon Cuba 45 years ago.

Diehl wrote that "Chavez sees himself as another Castro standing up to U.S. imperialism. Only his motivation is less ideological than psychiatric: For years this former military coup-plotter has had grandiose visions of himself as a second Simon Bolivar Ð and a dangerous paranoia about his 'enemies' at home and abroad." Of course "Enemy" No. 1 is U.S. President George W. Bush (Who else?), whom Chavez has described as a "devil."

During a marathon TV appearance in opposition to the recall referendum, Chavez grabbed a baseball bat and declared: "Fidel: Look out! This home run will go precisely over the city of Havana ... (and) land in the gardens of the White House." Baseball is big in Venezuela and Chavez knows how to turn a phrase.

Fortunately, most observers think it will be difficult for Chavez to turn Venezuela into an "elected dictatorship." Much will depend upon world oil prices, which have risen from $9 per barrel to more than $45 per barrel over the past five years. "Unless the current oil bonanza lasts a long time, there is no way Chavez will be able to maintain his generosity," Oppenheimer opined. "Venezuela has become poorer under his rule, and now there are millions of people demanding instant gratification."

Not only has Chavez befriended Castro, he was one of the last heads of state to visit Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and has called Zimbabwe's ruthless dictator, Robert Mugabe, "a warrior for freedom." Meanwhile, Washington was looking the other way, toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

But no matter who is elected president in November, it will be difficult for Washington to continue to ignore the country that provides 13 percent of our oil supplies. As Andres Oppenheimer wrote," It won't be easy for Chavez to install a Cuba-style dictatorship. He has 45 percent of the population passionately against him. And he may not want to risk international rejection by closing down opposition media, which are the last line of defense against his near-absolute powers."

I hope my old friends in the Venezuelan media will be able to withstand the daily threats and intimidation they'll face from a power-mad, would-be dictator who will now remain in office until 2007.

uy W. Farmer, of Carson City, spent seven years (1968-70 and 1986-90) in Venezuela during his U.S. Foreign Service career. His daughter Maria was born in Caracas in 1968.


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